Growing up in Canada, or the United States or Russia or Sweden or Finland or any other country where youngsters spend winter days and nights skating on frozen ponds and rivers and rinks, the dreams are similar. Playing hockey and loving the game quickly breeds a desire to be the best, and the best make it to the NHL. For most of us, the dream dies early but the love of the game never does.
Video: Ovechkin backstage at the NHL100 Event
For the gifted, talented and driven ones who do go on to play the game competitively at the highest levels, the dream expands to encompass winning the Stanley Cup, playing in the Olympics, playing in the All-Star Game. For the truly elite, eventual induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame may even be a possibility.
Thousands and thousands of players have skated the sheets of the National Hockey League in the 100-year history of the circuit, but it's likely none of them ever had the dream of being named one of the 100 greatest players in the league's storied history.
That's what made Friday night such a special and prestigious event at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. As part of a yearlong celebration of its centennial anniversary, the league named the top 100 players of its history this month. The identity of the first 33 of those players - all of them predominantly from the league's first half century from 1917-66 - was unveiled at the Winter Classic earlier this month. The final 67 players, those who played from 1967 to the six current players who made the cut, were feted on stage here tonight.
Aging warriors in their seventies and eighties - and many who are generations younger as well - were brought back into the spotlight for one more night of sharing stories, catching up with old friends and foes, rehashing the glories and disappointments of days, games, seasons, careers and eras gone by, and of celebrating the game that bonds them all.
They are Hockey Hall of Famers or future Hockey Hall of Famers every one, but most were likely blindsided by this honor. They didn't grow up dreaming of this one night in Los Angeles, years after the cheers had subsided, of having the honor of being named one of the top one-third of one percent of the players to ever play in this league.
"We're all kids," says Wayne Gretzky, perhaps the greatest of them all. "We all idolized the game, and we all grow up. That's been the most interesting thing for me about this top 100 is that whether it was Doug Harvey or Bobby Orr or Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky or Mark Messier or Gordie Howe, we all followed Hockey Night in Canada, we all followed the National Hockey League, we all collected hockey cards, and we all came from just really nice families and great parents that gave us an opportunity to play the game we loved, and we all wanted to be part of the National Hockey League.
"Every now and then we go, 'Well, that guy retired, how are we going to replace him?' And then other guys come along. The game is in great shape today, and the players that are playing today are wonderful young men, and they carry themselves extremely well, and we should all be proud as ex-players, and the National Hockey League should be very proud of what these young men do today. It's very exhilarating."
Caps captain Alex Ovechkin was named as one of the top 100, joining ex-Caps Mike Gartner, Scott Stevens, Adam Oates, Jaromir Jagr and Sergei Fedorov as one of six players on the list who once toiled in a Capitals sweater. Together and with some overlap here and there, those six players span roughly 30 of the nearly 43 years of NHL hockey in Washington.
With his parents, brother and wife looking on, Ovechkin joined Jagr, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews as one of only six currently active players to make the list.
"It's a great honor," says Ovechkin. "To be with the best players - it's obviously hard to say what I'm feeling right now. Probably it's the best award I've won. To be in the top 100 of all time, it's pretty amazing."
Upon beginning his career in Washington in 2005, Ovechkin became an instant superstar who helped fill Verizon Center on a nightly basis after some fallow years of hockey in the District. He scored his 500th career goal last season and surpassed the 1,000-point plateau earlier this month. He holds most of the Capitals' franchise records and ranks sixth in league history with .617 goals per game, just ahead of Gretzky (.601).
"We've had some discussions about great company," says Ovechkin. "I talked to Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. Those guys are legends. Everybody's having fun right now, and nobody's thinking of the past, they're just enjoying the time right now because they are in the top 100.
"I'm just proud, first of all, for my parents. They spent most of their time with me [especially] my dad, with practice and with patience and what they had. To see them here [taking pictures and videos] with their cell phones, it's something special. It's my mom, my wife, and my brother - everybody's here, and I'm just the happiest man."
Drafted fourth overall in the 1979 NHL Amateur Draft, Gartner was the Capitals' first true superstar. He scored 36 goals as a rookie with the Caps in 1979-80 - the first of 15 straight 30-goal seasons at the start of his career and 17 such campaigns overall - and rolled up 397 goals as a Capital before being traded to Minnesota in 1989, a deal that included two other future Hall of Famers in Larry Murphy and Dino Ciccarelli.
That Gartner and Murphy for Ciccarelli and Bob Rouse trade is one of only two trades in NHL history involving three Hall of Famers; the other one was a Nov. 1975 swap between the Bruins and Rangers involving Phil Esposito, Jean Ratelle and Brad Park. Esposito, Ratelle and Park were also among those named to the Top 100 on Friday.
Gartner finished his NHL career with 708 goals, and he ranks seventh all-time in that category. Named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001, Gartner's No. 11 hangs from the Verizon Center rafters.
"The Hall of Fame is a great honor," says Gartner. "This is pretty cool, though. Everybody up here is either a Hall of Famer or will be a Hall of Famer when they finish playing. And there are some Hall of Famers and some great players that did not make this list. So it really is an honor. It's something that I don't take lightly at all. I'm thrilled, and I'm really honored by it."
Blazing speed, a wicked slapshot and a diligent work ethic were Gartner's calling cards on the ice. His consistency over the years was remarkable, as was his durability and endurance over a 20-year pro career in which he played 1,432 NHL games.
"We've all talked about it over the last day or so that we've been here, and everybody is just as thrilled," says Gartner. "They really are, from Mike Gartner to Bobby Orr and everywhere in between. It is something that I know that everybody appreciates, and I've talked to almost all the guys.
"I served with Serge Savard on the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee for a number of years. You know guys from different venues and in different capacities and in different ways. But some of the guys, I haven't seen for a long time, and other guys I haven't even played against and maybe haven't even met them. I went up to Red Kelly and said, 'Hi, I'm Mike Gartner. I know you don't know me and I don't know you, but we're on this stage together.' So it's fun."
Stevens was Washington's first-round choice (fifth overall) in the 1982 NHL Entry Draft. Blessed with a unique combination of physicality, strength and skill, he was a rare breed in that he was able to excel as a defenseman in the league as an 18-year-old in 1982-83, his rookie season and the first season in which the Capitals made the playoffs.
Stevens spent eight years in Washington as part of a sturdy blueline that also included fellow Hall of Famers Murphy and Rod Langway, and once the Caps made the decision to accept five first-round draft choices as compensation from St. Louis signing him rather than re-signing Stevens themselves, they spent the next decade or so trying to replace him. Meanwhile, Stevens went on to captain the New Jersey Devils to three Stanley Cup championships. With 1,635 career games played, Stevens ranks second only to Chris Chelios (1,651) in games played by a defenseman.
Oates enjoyed many of his best seasons with St. Louis and Boston, coming to Washington in a blockbuster six-player swap with the Bruins on March 1, 1997, just ahead of the trade deadline. Oates was a key cog on the only Washington team ever to reach the Stanley Cup final in 1997-98, and he led the league in
A late bloomer who went undrafted, Oates signed with Detroit as a free agent after playing college hockey at RPI. In St. Louis, he was Brett Hull's splendid setup man, amassing 228 assists in just 195 games in a Blues sweater. Oates ranks seventh all-time in assists per game. While winding down his career with the Capitals, Oates led the NHL in assists at the age of 38 in 2000-01 and again the following season at the age of 39.
Jagr came to the Caps in a July, 2001 trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, his original NHL team. Now approaching his 45th birthday as well as the 1,700 career game plateau, Jagr has played for eight different NHL teams. He totaled 83 goals and 201 games in 190 games with the Caps, and played more games for only Pittsburgh and the Rangers among his eight NHL employers.
Earlier this season, Jagr surpassed Mark Messier for second place on the league's all-time scoring list, trailing only Gretzky. Jagr currently sits three points shy of 1,900 for his NHL career.
Fedorov concluded his NHL career in Washington, playing a total of just 70 regular season games in a Capitals sweater at the end of a brilliant career in which he totaled 483 goals and 1,179 points in 1,248 games. Acquired at the trade deadline late in the 2007-08 season, Fedorov scored the game-winning goal in Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs against the New York Rangers in 2009, helping the Caps overcome a 3-1 series deficit to win their first playoff series in 11 years.